“Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
mastering yourself is true power.”
~ Lao Tzu (Tao Te Ching)
Aggression is an instinct that ensures self-protection and preservation. It is also a driving force behind the formation of the self and the quest for power. This driving force is inherent in human nature and expresses itself as a life-affirming impulse to actualize unique potentials.
Our efforts to realize potentials activates the innate egocentric proclivity for power and control. Accordingly, harnessing one’s authority and strength can either constructively converge or destructively conflict with self-realization and ethical tendencies.
Since “human nature is potentially aggressive and destructive and potentially orderly and constructive” (Margaret Mead), prioritizing our capacity to responsibly manage this energy is critical.
Clearly, a healthy expression of aggression is necessary to maintain internal homeostasis and well-being. It not only fuels our pursuit of attainment, but it also awakens natural, instinctual responses to actual and perceived threats and harm. When the release of aggression corresponds with what catalyzes it, we can define limits and boundaries that help clarify moral principles. When we repress, deny, minimize, suppress, rationalize, and intellectualize aggressive impulses, we run into trouble. We lose perspective, and we lose balance.
Although aggression can mobilize action and define necessary limits, if not handled wisely, it can alienate others, exacerbate psychological distress and increase adrenal hormone production, leading to sundry forms of physical illness. Considering that anger is the most mercurial and hence the most potentially transformative of all the emotions, examining its role in our lives is essential to recovery. Hence, it is elemental to treatment as a trauma therapist to routinely explore with clients their relationship to aggression.
Often this exploration reveals explosive intermittent rage or blind obedience and compliance. These are common manifestations of aggressive energy that have not been adequately assimilated and metabolized. Like my therapy clients, I grappled with these polarized extremes throughout my own healing process from complex trauma.
Frequently the polarization in aggression and the denial of instinctual aggression are by-products of trauma bonding.
This split occurs because folks plagued by trauma bonds have Stockholm Syndrome, a pathological attachment to abusers. This pathological attachment allows one to survive the horrors of debilitating abuse. Characteristic of Stockholm Syndrome is the adaptive ability to take on the abuser’s perspective. This is an attempt on the part of the victim to secure a locus of control. By seeking a rational reason for the mistreatment, the victim can attempt to formulate strategies to ensure safety. Naturally, this doesn’t work because the abuse is arbitrary and unpredictable.
With the continuation of escalating abuse and deterioration, the victim eventually breaks down and incurs all blame. At this stage, instinctual aggression is deeply buried and denied. Fawning, compliance, and servility typify the victim’s mode of survival.
It follows, then, that breaking free of systemic abuse and brainwashing necessitates exhuming repressed instinctual aggression. This process is quite daunting, as hate rooted in systemic brutality and humiliation generates high emotional arousal states that may be expressed through raw generalized rage and violence.
Author Stephen King’s classic horror film Carrie serves as a dramatic example of this phenomenon. Tormented teen outcast Carrie White’s telekinetic powers crescendo in homicidal rage when she finally implodes from the onslaught of abuse from her mentally ill fundamentalist mother Margaret and the cruel bullying of her high school peers. In the classic prom scene, in full activation mode Carrie unleashes her wrath on those who hurt and scapegoated her throughout her life.
Indeed when one emerges from the psychic numbness of Stockholm Syndrome, the instinctual aggression exhumed can be tantamount to the destruction and wreckage unleashed by Carrie White.
When aggressive energy is stuck, the survival strategy of fawning may be indicated. Fawning is designed to establish safety and agency by being obsequious and obedient.
Trauma therapist and author Pete Walker explains, “For the nascent codependent, all hints of danger immediately trigger servile behaviors and abdication of rights and needs.”
Systemic abuse causes the real self to go underground. A false self emerges in the service of survival. Integral to this false self is fawning. For many women who are abused, fawning is a culturally sanctioned response.
Cultural mores judge anger in women as unfeminine and contrary to the role of nurturer. Women who behave saintly and motherly are admirable. Overtly aggressive women are at risk of being labeled in pejorative ways. Given these taboos, a woman’s quest for power may result in turning one’s aggression on oneself. Indeed, I learned to appeal to others' humanity or lack thereof, by groveling, making myself small and over-functioning. Internalizing my justifiable rage led to concurrent depression.
My personal struggles with the dark and light dimensions of archetypal feminine power eventually culminated in confronting deep-seated wounds incurred from generational misogyny and being raised in a family where we were all trapped, like caged birds by mental illness. I yielded to others' needs, compliant, pretty, fearful, and objectified to please and glean crumbs of ‘love’ from the shit sandwich. When rebellion hit, I’d throw myself into hyper self-sufficiency, studying martial arts, traveling, and feigning counter dependence.
Deeply embedded in these polarized ways of being was a destructive shame that denounced my rage, reclusiveness, neediness, and madness.
Turning towards the wisdom of feminine inspired archetypes and Goddesses helped me heal my core wounds and assimilate my aggression. I was drawn to Kali, the destroyer of evil forces. This Hindu trinity Goddess dissipates terror and illusions through confrontation with darkness. Kali was one of the many resources that helped me access my power by confronting the rage I feared.
Creativity is another invaluable means of giving aggressive energy expression. Developing mythic stories of one’s plight helps heal internal and external conflicts that held one down and kept one trapped. Through story-telling, we can map out, through our imagination, the path to becoming oneself. By defining the ogres and dragons to slay, we open ourselves up to the power of our warrior spirit. By elevating our stories and struggles through art, we discover the wisdom inherent in our metaphorical interpretations. This can be tremendously illuminating and liberating.
A physical cathartic expression is also an effective therapeutic tool. Many of my clients have discharged volatile fury at The Wrecking Club, where for a nominal fee, one can safely smash various objects. I personally gleaned satisfaction shooting inanimate targets at the rifle range.
To ensure appropriate mindfulness and containment of aggressive impulses, DBT exercises assist with emotional regulation, self-soothing, and radical acceptance. I typically recommend this workbook by McKay, Wood & Brantley.
For adult survivors of child abuse, identifying with aggressive maneuvering or self-effacing passivity and the abdication of power is an ongoing struggle. Often this vacillation from aggressive maneuvering to patterns of victim posturing can occur within the same individual. What ensues is an insidious manifestation of fluctuating between ruthless acquisition and self-imposed sabotage.
This pattern is most starkly evidenced in adults habitually treated as narcissistic extensions by their disordered parent. The insatiable parental narcissist is seeking adulation, fear, and intractable control. Devoid of empathy, the parental narcissist is malevolently driven to annihilate the child’s sense of self by objectifying and reducing the child to narcissistic supply.
Consequentially, the children of narcissistic parents may become adults who deny their personal power and cater to others' emotional needs. Alternatively, since it’s not uncommon for aggression to be used as a shield to defend against underlying vulnerability, these adult children may act out their narcissistic wounding by perpetrating others in the same way they experienced. The compulsion to repeat traumatic psychological violence will involve behavioral enactment as either victim or victimizer.
In order to benefit from the inherent potential for power within aggression we need to reframe this aspect of our humanity as an available source of vitality.
When we accept the totality of who we are and trust our reality and capacity to titrate volatile emotional energy effectively, we can articulate words that define our needs and limits. Articulating the words that define boundaries and limits is contingent on accessing instinctual aggression. This is a crucial trajectory to upholding one’s authority and defining personal ethics.
To paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes, if I know that your freedom ends where my nose begins, I also understand the moral imperative of handling aggressive impulses conscientiously. From this place, I not only define how to guard myself against others’ hostile motives, but I also come to master my own ability to govern my own safety and authority effectively. As Lao Tzu conveyed, that is where true power resides.